Grad School Professors as Gatekeepers… And Then Some

Photo Source: Lynn Friedman

Photo Source: Lynn Friedman

The best piece of advice I received as a grad student was to think of my graduate school professors and advisors as nothing more than gatekeepers. These were people who had been given power by my department, university, and the profession to train me and award me with a PhD. On the surface, it is well known that I, as the student, had to demonstrate sufficient competency in order to advance: master’s thesis, graduate minor, qualifying exam, proposal defense, and then dissertation defense. And, I did so, hence the three letters behind my name since July 2013. They made the boxes that I successfully checked in a six-year period.

Such a utilitarian approach doesn’t sound so bad. Graduate school was simply a means to an end. All I needed to do was appease my grad school advisors’ conditions for advancing toward the PhD — nothing more, nothing less.

But, graduate training tends to be much more complex than that. The dropout rate would not be 50 percent, mental illness would not run so rampant, and there would probably be a lot fewer folks stuck in lifelong ABD purgatory. But, the utilitarian model, while helpful, has the unintended consequence of serving to blame those very students who do not advance in their training.

Admittedly, I can only speak from my own perspective as a Black queer non-binary scholar-activist. So, I need to narrow my concerns to the experiences of marginalized graduate students, perhaps especially my fellow unicorns at the lovely, yet sometimes dreadful, intersections of more than one oppressed status. The utilitarian model — “just play the game” — is naively simplistic when one’s training exists in the context of cissexist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, racist, ableist, and xenophobic oppression. We do not start at the same (privileged) starting point, we are not given the same quality training and resources to excel, our take on the game is seen as inferior, and we are less likely to enjoy the spoils of successfully winning the game.

Ironically, I actually intended to write this essay to promote the aforementioned utilitarian approach. But, as I reflect on how I played the game — but still feel as though I did not win in some important ways — I have grown wary of that advice.

First, I should highlight that the actual game of succeeding in graduate school demanded so much more than checking the boxes that my grad school advisors demanded. There seemed to be an infinite number of implied and sometimes explicitly stated expectations that were either 1) required to actually earn the PhD, 2) highly recommended in order to get a (tenure-track) job (at a Research I university), or 3) deemed central to what it means to be a (mainstream) sociologist. I cannot say that it was ever entirely clear which end a particular means achieved. Was the explicit effort to steer me away from gender and sexuality studies — the areas I expressed interest in in my grad school application — actually a matter of getting the PhD? Probably not. Was the explicit effort to “beat the activist” out of me a formal part of PhD training? Doubtful.

This lack of clarity about the motivations behind particular aspects of my graduate training proved to be more troublesome than a problem of uncertainty. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it allowed for my graduate advisors to use their superordinate status to push me into a certain direction professionally. I hope most professors could not be described as manipulative, but I have heard stories that echo my own experiences. I had to concern myself with my status in the department, as greater visibility and status as a student meant more opportunities to advance my training. The students on the periphery of the program were tale-tell signs of what could happen if I ignored too many of the informal and implied expectations.

A second, related concern is the strong seductive power of being in the “in” crowd. I was drawn to the game-playing approach, especially as it became a matter of survival. I did what I had to do to get the degree, but also pursued other things (usually secretly) that fed my spirit. But, I saw that others, usually privileged students, were invited into relationships with professors in ways that were not impersonal exchanges. Some were invited to babysit, catsit, and housesit for professors — I never was. Some remain lifelong friends and/or collaborators with their former advisors; some honor their former advisors by making them their children’s godparents. Across the board, many at least stay in touch with their advisors, occasionally leaning on them for professional advice (and sometimes personal support), drawing on their networks, and writing recommendation letters.

I (mostly) played the game, and what did I get? Strained professional and personal ties with my grad school advisors, generalized anxiety disorder, and an unhealthy dose of complex trauma to work through still years later from the awful experience of grad school. No, I do not actually want those kinds of relationships with my advisors; it seems unethical to ask students (who would fear saying no) to watch your children, pets, or house. But, that kind of intimacy was partially denied to me and resisted as a matter of my own survival.

Source: RuPaul's Drag Race Untucked

Source: RuPaul’s Drag Race Untucked

I would be lying if I said I did not want some kind of personal relationship with my grad school advisors. These were people I saw on a weekly, if not daily basis, who were invested in my training and success, who observed the highs and lows of the roller coaster known as grad school. I never wanted to treat grad school as a game, for I never knew education to be a cold business transaction.

Perhaps that is where my naiveté shows. My professors — trained sociologists — were not my friends, or therapists, or confidants, and — as I learned the hard way — they were not to be collaborators or colleagues of equal status. A power-imbalanced relationship, in which my advancement and career depended upon them, is inherently fraught. My vulnerable position in these student-professor relationships was heightened by the inequality in our social locations — them white, cisgender, middle-class, (mostly) heterosexual, and me Black, genderqueer, a broke grad student, and queer. I was perhaps too open about suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and about being an activist (which they saw as a professional liability).

The funny thing is, as I became more jaded, distant, guarded, and utilitarian as a means of survival, one advisor criticized me for holding back and for not seeming to trust them. Despite having my anxiety dismissed and their efforts to beat the activist out of me, I was expected to still bare my soul to them — the very soul they intended to crush, or at least co-opt.

I suspect that the privileged way of relating to others in the academy is to be unquestioningly open and trusting of one’s peers and superordinates; indeed, grad school was not the last time I was accused of not trusting a (white) colleague. But, for marginalized folks, that kind of openness and trust can open us up for others’ critique, judgment, dismissal, or other violence. Yet, you get dismissed as uppity, guarded, mean, cold, or standoffish if you don’t open up for privileged colleagues’ entertainment/inspection/surveillance. A double-standard for marginalized scholars and students about ways of interacting with (privileged) others in the academy, which, in the end, actually has nothing to do with the quality of our research or teaching.

Frankly, I never found one good strategy to excel in grad school.  Just being good at what I do wasn’t enough because what I really wanted to do — study the intersection of race and sexuality — was dismissed.  And, being “likeable” wasn’t enough or, to be really real, even possible for the long-term.  I fumbled my way through grad school, achieving what I now see as inevitable: I would earn that damn PhD and never look back.  I just wish I was in a position to advise future PhDs how to do so without the scars I endured in the process.